October 5, 2017

The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider

4. Race, immigration and discrimination

The public has long been divided over issues of race: The extent to which discrimination exists and what – if any – approaches should be undertaken to address it. In recent years, growing shares of the public say more needs to be done to address racial equality and see discrimination against blacks as an impediment to this.

Views of immigration have also shifted in recent years, as Americans increasingly view immigrants as a source of strength, rather than as a burden, for the nation.

Partisan divides in both of these areas have only grown over the last several decades, as the public shift in these views is largely driven by Democrats who are increasingly likely to take racially liberal and pro-immigrant positions, while Republican views have remained relatively stable.

Shifting racial attitudes

Overall, 61% say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites, compared with 35% who say the country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites.

The current balance of opinion has changed little over the past few years but marks a shift from 2014 and earlier when the public was more evenly divided on this question. In March 2014, 49% thought the country had made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites, while 46% said there was more to do. A wide majority of Democrats and Democratic leaners (81%) now say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites. The share holding this view is up 18 points since 2014, when a smaller majority (63%) of Democrats said this.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, most (59%) say the country has already made the needed changes to give blacks equal rights with whites; 36% say that more needs to be done. While it continues to be the minority view, the share of Republicans saying the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites has increased since 2014.

(Note that this question was fielded before the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. In a survey conducted shortly after those events, a growing share of the public saw racism as a big problem for the country. See the Aug. 29, 2017 post “Views of racism as a major problem increase sharply, especially among Democrats”).

Significant differences in views on this question remain across racial and ethnic groups. However, in recent years the share of Hispanics and whites saying the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites have grown significantly, narrowing the opinion gap with blacks. 

Among Hispanics, 69% say the country needs to do more to give blacks equal rights with whites, while 27% say it has made the necessary changes. The share saying the country needs to do more to address racial inequality is up 15 points since 2014 and up 22 points from 2009, when the question was first asked.

The trajectory of views among whites is similar to that of Hispanics. Currently, 54% of whites think the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites; somewhat fewer (41%) say the country has made the changes needed. This marks a significant shift from 2014, when just 39% of whites said the country needed to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights and 52% thought the country had made the needed changes.

Blacks overwhelmingly say the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites (88%). This also reflects an increase from 2014, when 79% said this.

Within Democrats and Democratic leaners, there is now a relatively modest gap between the views of blacks, whites and Hispanics on the question of whether the country needs to do more on black equality. This is a substantial change from 2009, when whites and Hispanics were about 30 percentage points less likely than blacks to say the country needed to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.

In the current survey, 90% of black Democrats, 80% of white Democrats and 76% of Hispanic Democrats say the country needs to do more to give blacks equal rights with whites. In 2009, 81% of black Democrats said more changes were needed, compared with 50% of white and 49% of Hispanic Democrats.

Public opinion also has shifted on perceptions of racial discrimination. Overall, 49% say that blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition; 41% say racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days.

The share who says racial discrimination is the main reason why many blacks can’t get ahead is up 9 points since last year and is the highest it has been in Pew Research Center surveys dating to 1994. Opinion is dramatically different than in November 2009 – one year after Barack Obama was elected president – when just 18% said discrimination was the main reason many black people could not get ahead.

This shift in overall attitudes about whether discrimination inhibits the progress of blacks in the country is almost entirely the result of changing views among Democrats. Republican views have moved only modestly. As a result, the already wide partisan gap on this question has grown considerably larger over the course of recent years.

Overall, 64% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say that racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead these days, compared with 28% who say blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition. As recently as 2014, fewer than half (41%) of Democrats said discrimination was the bigger impediment to black progress.

Most Republicans reject the idea that discrimination is the main reason why blacks can’t get ahead. Three-quarters (75%) say that blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition; just 14% say racial discrimination is the main reason why many blacks can’t get ahead. The share of Republicans who say racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks can’t get ahead has changed little in recent years and is lower than it was in 1994, when 26% said this.

As in the past, there remain wide racial and ethnic, age, and educational differences in views of whether discrimination affects the progress of blacks.

By 59% to 31%, blacks say that racial discrimination is the main reason why many black people can’t get ahead in the country today. By contrast, more whites say that black people who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition (54%) than say that racial discrimination is the bigger impediment to black progress (35%). Hispanics are divided in their views: 48% see discrimination as the main reason for a lack of black progress, while 45% say that blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition.

Notably, over the course of the more than two decades Pew Research Center has asked this question, the views of black and white Democrats have been roughly the same. Today, 66% of white Democrats and 62% of black Democrats say racial discrimination is the main reason blacks can’t get ahead.

Young adults (those ages 18 to 29) are the only age group in which a majority (54%) says that discrimination is the main reason many blacks can’t get ahead; 42% say black people are mostly responsible for their own condition. Views on this question among those ages 30-49 are divided. And among those 50 and older, a majority (56%) says that blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition.

Affirmative action programs now viewed more positively

 

The share of the public saying affirmative action programs “designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing” has increased over the last several years. Today, 71% of Americans say this, up from 63% three years ago.

The rise in positive views of affirmative action programs in college admissions is evident across the political spectrum, though substantial partisan differences remain.

Today, about half (52%) of Republicans and Republican leaners say these programs are a good thing, while 39% say they are a bad thing. In 2014, Republican views were divided (46% good, 47% bad).

Democrats have long expressed positive views of affirmative action programs. Currently 84% of Democrats and Democratic leaners view these programs positively, a modest increase from 78% in 2014.

While blacks and Hispanics continue to view affirmative action more positively than whites (82% of blacks and 83% of Hispanics say these programs are good, compared with 66% of whites), this gap is narrower than in the past. Black and Hispanic views are little changed over the last three years, while whites’ views have grown increasingly positive (in 2014, 55% said affirmative action programs were a good thing).

Is discrimination overstated or understated?

When asked generally about discrimination in the country today, 57% say the bigger problem is people not seeing discrimination where it really does exist; 39% say the bigger problem for the country is people seeing discrimination where it really does not exist.

Fully 84% of blacks say the bigger problem is people not seeing discrimination where it really exists. Two-thirds (66%) of Hispanics also hold this view. Among whites, opinion is more divided: 49% say the bigger problem in the country is people not seeing discrimination where it really does exist, while about as many (46%) say the bigger problem is people seeing discrimination where there is none.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners, 63% say the bigger problem in the country is people seeing discrimination where there actually is none. Conservative Republicans (68%) are 16 points more likely to take this view than moderate and liberal Republicans (52%).

Views among Democrats and Democratic leaners are the reverse: 79% say that the bigger problem in the country is people not seeing discrimination where it really does exist. Comparably large majorities of liberal Democrats (82%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (76%) say this.

Most say immigrants strengthen the country

Most Americans have a positive view of the contributions of immigrants to the country. About two-thirds (65%) say that immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents; 26% say that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care.

Positive views of immigrants have continued to increase in recent years. Attitudes today are the reverse of what they were in 1994. At that time, 63% said immigrants did more to burden the country, while just 31% said they did more to strengthen the country. As recently as 2011, about as many said immigrants burdened (44%) as strengthened (45%) the country.

The public’s increasingly positive views of immigrants reflect a sharp shift in attitudes among Democrats, in particular. Overall, 84% of Democrats and Democratic leaners say immigrants do more to strengthen than burden the country. Opinion among Democrats has shifted steadily since 2010, when 48% thought immigrants did more to strengthen the country and 40% said they did more to burden the country.

Republicans are split in their views of the contributions of immigrants: 44% say immigrants do more to burden the country, while about as many (42%) say they do more to strengthen the country. Republican attitudes toward immigrants have fluctuated over the past few decades, though the share viewing immigrants as strengthening the nation has never surpassed the share saying immigrants are a burden. But Republican views today are slightly less positive than they were in the early 2000s. For example, in June 2003, 46% said immigrants strengthened the country.

As a result of differing opinion trends among Republicans and Democrats, the once modest partisan difference in views of immigrants has ballooned to 42 points in the current survey – the widest gap since the question was first asked in 1994.

Beyond partisanship, there remain significant demographic differences in views of immigrants’ overall impact on the country. Overall, 83% of Hispanics say immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. This compares with 70% of blacks and 60% of whites who say this.

Majorities of those across levels of educational attainment take a positive view of immigrants’ contributions to the country. However, views are the most positive among those with the highest levels of education. For example, 82% of postgraduates say immigrants strengthen the country, compared with 59% of those with no college experience.

Adults ages 18-29 overwhelmingly say immigrants do more to strengthen (82%) than burden (13%) the country. Views also are broadly positive among those ages 30-49 (71% strengthen, 22% burden). Views among those 50 and older also tilt positive but by smaller margins (55% to 35%).

Within both parties, young adults are the most positive towards immigrants. Among Republicans and Republicans leaners, a 62% majority of those ages 18-29 say immigrants strengthen the country. This compares with far smaller shares among those ages 30-49 (47%), 50-64 (36%) and 65 and older (31%). Among Democrats, nearly all (94%) of those ages 18-29 say immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. Somewhat smaller, though still sizeable, majorities of those ages 30-49 (88%), 50-64 (79%) and 65 and older (72%) say the same.

Views about immigrants and the nation largely parallel attitudes about whether openness to people from all over the world is an essential aspect of the national character: 68% say openness to foreigners is essential to “who we are as a nation,” while 29% say that if America is too open to people from all over the world “we risk losing our identity as a nation.” (For more on this question, see the Aug. 4, 2017 post, “Most Americans view openness to foreigners as ‘essential to who we are as a nation.”)